Gaines Hayes, Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay
On the edge of Channelside nestled next to the Lee Roy Selmon expressway, members of Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay gathered at the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority boardroom. These members signed up for the Public Policy Committee’s Signature Event for 2017 – Driving Forward: A Discussion of Smart Cities, Autonomous Vehicles and the Impact of Technology on Everyday Life.
This event was organized to address the rapid improvements in technology and transportation required for the Tampa Bay community and to initiate a conversation about the possible benefits and limits of such systems. How can our city balance new technologies, transportation, education and economic development?
While we may not be in the era of flying cars like the Jetsons, there is still a world of opportunity in the realm of autonomous vehicles and smart cities. The moderator for the discussion was none other than Mark Sharpe, Former County Commissioner and current Chief Potential Officer at !p, Potential Unleashed. Among the distinguished panelists sitting at the head of the room, there was Senator Jeff Brandes, District 22, who earned a reputation in the Florida Legislature as an early supporter of Google’s autonomous vehicles back in 2012 when such a concept still seemed like science fiction. Next, there was Katherine Eagan, CEO of HART, who has traveled to cities across the US looking for inspiration on how to incorporate new tech with the support of public and private companies. Rounding out the list of panelists was Ron Katzman, Director of Strategy and Operations for SME Solutions Group. Ron was the brains behind smart city concepts within Philadelphia and an architect for how to compete for smart city initiatives.
Mark kicked off the discussion with the first question:
- What is a smart grid?
Ron Katzman: It’s a power delivery system that engages in two-way conversations between different interfaces. Think of it as a better communication network or an extension of The Internet of Things.
Katherine Eagan: It’s a way to have vehicles talk with each other and pedestrians to keep everyone safer.
Sen. Jeff Brandes: The big takeaway from tonight is the idea that “AI is the new electricity.” It will spread to every industry across the country. Think of how 95% of all vehicles accidents are the result of human error. Imagine how we can save thousands of lives. We have the potential to double/triple the infrastructure capacity of cities with autonomous vehicles. There will be exponential growth toward shared electric, autonomous vehicles because that’s where the money is. Everyone from government to public/private companies is jumping in this space.
- As the transportation infrastructure changes in the next 20 years, what other changes can we expect to see as a result?
Ron Katzman: We have to think of the social aspects that go beyond driving. Will this type of change alter people’s living conditions, drinking habits, etc.?
Katherine Eagan: Seminole Heights was built before the introduction of cars. It was mainly built for walking pedestrians. It just has a different feel to it than most other neighborhoods built later after the introduction of cars. This is the kind of change you can expect across neighborhoods once we make the switch to autonomous vehicles.
Sen. Jeff Brandes: All of (Jeff) Vinik’s parking garages are flat and can be turned into office spaces. Will it become a future requirement for parking garages in the future? It could definitely make the transition much easier if it did. Plus, there’s the issue of creating more space for pick-ups and drop-offs because it’s not just limousines using that space anymore.
- What about Cyber Security issues?
Ron Katzman: The Internet of Things crates a front door to be hacked. However, we can mitigate these concerns with encryption and detection, but if there’s potential for economic gains, then hacks will happen. There can even be hacks from individuals just because they feel like doing it.
Sen. Jeff Brandes: It’s especially a concern with cars and trucks. We need AI counter-hackers and billions of dollars to keep this infrastructure safe.
- Amazon has listed transit as a major criteria in its search for a city to add its second headquarters. Should we consider fixed guideway, rail and/or autonomous vehicles?
Sen. Jeff Brandes: Rail costs $100 per mile, and that’s not even taking other things into consideration like structural issues and covering basics costs (like printing tickets). Right now, we’re caught between the moments of “thunder and lightning:” we’re waiting for something major to happen. We have to focus on maximizing our options. I’m a big fan of prototyping because we don’t know what the future holds. We should stick to rubber tires as much as possible.
Katherine Eagan: We should focus on the goal rather than the vehicle being used to attain the goal. It would be nice if there was a set of large vehicles to get you to Tampa, and then there’s a set of smaller vehicles that can “platoon” and get you around Tampa itself.
Ron Katzman: I agree with the idea of prototyping. I also want to let other areas go first so we can see what might work best in Tampa. “Let’s be first to be second.”
- How can we make Florida ideal to these autonomous vehicle companies?
Sen. Jeff Brandes: Pittsburgh is attractive because of Carnegie Mellon’s robotics department. Uber essentially did a corporate takeover of the university when they recruited most of their faculty. Arizona is interesting because they position themselves as not having as many regulations as California, but it’s still close enough for companies based in California to contemplate an easy relocation. I expect to see Tampa or Miami as an early deployment city for autonomous vehicles because we both have stable weather, friendly business climate and a large group of people willing to work with these companies.
- How can young professionals become more involved in this public policy discussion for autonomous vehicles?
Ron Katzman: As Theodore Roosevelt once said, we should emphasize how “your natural surroundings are an asset that should increase in value.” If people can vote for contestants on The Voice or American Idol, then they can vote for important issues like the presence of autonomous vehicles.
Katherine Eagan: The HART office here in Tampa had a start-up atmosphere where you could know the likes and interests of your coworkers (like who watches The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones). It’s important to have a sense of connection within the community.
Sen. Jeff Brandes: As shocking as it sounds, Florida is a relatively nimble state when it comes to public policy.
- Can you give us an overview of some of the ripple effects of autonomous vehicles?
Katherine Eagan: Car companies fought tooth and nail against safety concerns like seatbelts. Autonomous vehicle accidents will become major issues (like how commercial airplanes aren’t supposed to collide with each other). There’s no telling if people will buy, lease or rideshare these autonomous vehicles.
Sen. Jeff Brandes: Insurance companies will focus on the algorithms of autonomous vehicles that can be tested and/or simulated over long periods of time. As a result, these algorithms will become more accurate and sophisticated as they continue to run. We also have to understand there will be new electrical consumption patterns. Right now, most electrical consumption happens during the day, but that will change when people leave their cars charging overnight. Another major change already underway is that car rental companies, like Hertz, are hurting from ridesharing services like Uber.
Ron Katzman: Will driving schools even exist in 20 years?
- Are state and local laws ready for autonomous vehicles? Who looks out for the users of autonomous vehicles?
Ron Katzman: State and local laws need to be flexible and/or adaptable to whatever the future holds. We also need to hone in on the proper incentives and punishments for such huge numbers of people relying on autonomous vehicles. As for the second question, that is difficult to say. Most companies have to answer to shareholders, but we need to change that mindset.
Mark Sharpe concluded the panel discussion by reminding attendees that Tampa needs (young) talent to attract companies like Amazon to build their headquarters here. We have the technology, but that doesn’t help if we don’t have energetic people eager to use it and prove Tampa’s potential.